Learning from a Fellow Funder

Among my many goals as the director of the Hadassah Foundation is to help my board members—19 philanthropically-minded women from across the United States—to become better grantmakers.   As a result, at least once a quarter, as well as during our semi-annual in-person board meetings, we bring in a speaker who can address an issue related to our grantmaking or who can challenge us to do our work in a more effective manner.

Like many foundations, the Hadassah Foundation only makes one-year grants. However, my new board chair was eager to start a conversation with the rest of the trustees about whether we should change this practice.  She liked my suggestion to invite another funder to our December board meeting, ideally one who had recently begun making multi-year grants, so we could explore the pros and cons of such a move with our board as a whole.

On the recommendation of the staff at GrantCraft, I contacted the Virginia Gildersleeve International Fund (VGIF), which within the past couple of years had begun making a limited number of multi-year grants after being a single-year funder for much of its lifespan. Like the Hadassah Foundation, the fund supports women and girls internationally with relatively modest-sized grants, and relies on both an endowment and fundraising for its budget.

At our meeting, VGIF staffers Elisabet Eklind (executive director) and Staci Alziebler-Perkins (program director) described their fund, their governance and fundraising efforts, and most critically, what they had learned from their multi-year grant making to-date. The impact on my board was electric.  Like many foundations, we operate in our own silo, and many of our assumptions are well-ingrained.  But hearing about the experiences of a sister fund—really listening to their story—forced many of my board members to question how we operate and think about how we could work smarter.  The agenda we had planned out for the rest of the day was immediately jettisoned, as my board members were eager to discuss and reflect upon what they had just learned.  By the meeting’s end, we decided to create a host of new committees to address the critical issues that were raised by the VGIF presentation, including task forces that will examine our fundraising efforts, our grantmaking strategy in both the U.S. and Israel, and how we can better engage our board alumni.  

So what can be learned from this experience? 

1) Drawing upon networks and resources specific to the philanthropy world is absolutely critical to being a better grantmaker.  The odds of me finding VGIF on my own, never mind finding a funder who had just evaluated their new multi-year giving program, was near nil.  Taking advantage of a resource, such as GrantCraft, made all the difference in the world.  (An added bonus:  my board members were excited to learn that I heard about VGIF via networking in the philanthropy world. It makes my job of justifying the use of the foundation’s limited resources—both money and my time—in support of such efforts that much easier.)

2) It is absolutely critical that foundation board members—in addition to staff—engage in information-sharing and networking efforts with their peers and other experts in the field.  While I certainly could have relayed information effectively about VGIF’s experience with multi-year grantmaking with my board, hearing from VGIF’s staff members directly had a more powerful impact on my trustees.   

3) There is much to be learned from those who are, simultaneously, within a standard deviation of similar and different than you.  In many ways, VGIF’s mission and certain elements of its operations are simpatico with that of the Hadassah Foundation, enabling my board members, from the get-go, to understand the challenges and successes that the VGIF staffers shared with us.  On the other hand, there were just enough dissimilarities between the two funds—including a difference in perspective, as reflected in Elisabet and Staci’s remarks—that forced us to revisit our rationale and strategy and our long-standing practices. 

With VGIF’s office only a short walk away from our office (yet another pleasant surprise!) I look forward to learning from, and sharing with, our colleagues in the future.

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